The Ear – They’re watching you.
During the early 1960’s, director Karel Kachyna met Moravian writer, Jan Prochazka and their long collaboration produced many of the key films in Kachyna’s oeuvre. In 1968, under Soviet occupation and during the Normalisation period when the stranglehold was starting to decend over Czech film, Kachyna’s darin gpoliticalnoir-dramaUcho (The Ear, 1970) was withheld from circulation immediately upon completion. It took the Velvet revolution and a return to democracy in 1989 to get the two-decade ban on the film lifted. Even so, it is still only seen in art house cinemas and occasionally on television.
Prochazka was definitively in his element working with Kachyna. The Ear is the second last film they would make together (Prochazka died in 1971) and distinguishes Kachyna from the Czech new Wave by presenting a directly political film, directly critical of the rule of the dictatorial leader Antonin Novotny (Party Chief 1953 – 68 and President 1957 – 68) and by coincidence also providing a damning commentary on the equally oppressive leadership of Gustav Husak who was in power when the film was completed. Having gleaned that from the research into the film, I should add that it is more likely the films stripped-down look and hard-won insights into the embittered married couple that is largely responsible for the films interest outside of its native country.
Ludvik (Radoslav Brzobohaty is a senior ministry official in te bureaucracy of Prague’s ruling Communist Party. Anna (Jirina Bohdalova) is his alcoholic wife, daughter of a small town pub-owner. The couple of have a young son and live in a comfortable, if not extravagant house on a quiet street in a nice neighbourhood. Right from the start we are aware that the viciousness between the couple is more than character development. We know this is a primary sub-plot of the film. Ludvik and Anna come across as the characteristically depoliticized citizens of a society deeply restricted in its self expression by the Party. it is only later that we realize their complex and multifaceted marital relationship is at the very centre of The Ear’s concerns, allegorizing itself with the equally complex relationship between a ruthless political regime and its justified paranoid populace.
The events of The Ear take place over one long evening that extends into the next morning. Our couple return home, squabbling, after having been to a party function. They find their gate unlocked and their spare set of house keys are missing from their usual spot. Once inside there are other unusual things, such as the power being out in their house (when they can see houses lit up across the street and next door) and their phone line is dead. They start to worry they are being watched by the suspicious and unethical Communist authorities.
In a series of very beautiful and frightening scenes, Ludvik starts to replay the evening in his mind’s eye as if it were a surreal nightmare, only now he is re-imagining significance onto the events that took place. He starts to remember phrases out of context such as, “Sorry, the comrades are listening”; “All that counts is whether they accept socialist goals”; “Didn’t they speak to you?”; “They’re all trained spies” – and now sees them as pregnant with inference that he is being watched. Alone side of this, his supervisor who is also his good friend has recently been taken away on trumped-up charges, and Ludvik starts to fear that he is next.
At this point, both he and Anna start to notice men in their yard wandering in and out from the street.
Terrified of what could happen to him, and anxious that his joyless, but relatively easy life at home may be over, Ludvik starts to rifle through his own papers examining each for evidence of being read in offending ways. He starts burning his papers and correspondence in the toilet. Anna, who thinks he is being paranoid, is teasing and nagging him all the while about his increasing lack of interest in her physically and emotionally. Ludvik starts to retaliate barb for barb until the communication reaches a climax where Anna confesses to having had an affair while he was away on one of his many recent trips. Ludvik seems to take this calmly, but later he slaps her so hard she bleeds and then forces her head roughly under a tap of cold water claiming he is intending to sober her up.
Suddenly the gate bell rings and rings and the couple are not sure how to respond. They soon see it is a number of Ludviks party comrades. Fearful of what their real motives are for showing up so late, Ludvik plays the host, while Anna, temporarily losing her fear, plays the angry wife. The gang proceed to get very drunk in Ludviks house, consuming alcohol and the anniversary cake of the couple. When they finally leave, Anna and Ludvik start bickering again, only go discover that their house has been bugged and ‘The Ear’ has been listening in to all of their conversations.
At this point, fairly late in the film, when the precarious reality of their situation becomes manifest that a previously submerged (though always present) dynamic in Luidvik and Anna’s relationship rises to the surface. they abandon their previous positions against each other and start to express great tenderness, protectiveness and depth of feeling for one another. The Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf style horror comes to an end as Big Brother closes in. The analogies established earlier in the film that of the personal relationship reflecting the tensions of the wider battle between the people and their government, both which involve suspicion, hypocrisy, resentments, tarnished ideals, secrets and lies, now become less important. Instead we see the shift take place as the authorities establish ultimate power over a completely powerless individual.
The Ear ends on a chilling note. Ludvk receives a phone call telling him he has in fact received a promotion. Instead of being thrilled at this good news, the couple sit together more mystified than ever at the Party’s curious methods and erratic behaviour. Anna’s final words ring in our ears: “I’m scared.”
Cinematic effect is used in The Ear to create the altered feelings at different points in the film. Ludvik’s memories of the party are slightly distorted, with focus on mouths, bowl like heads, direct camera eye contact, and bright lighting make the party and its memories seem like a dream. This gives the events a surreal like terror, as we don’t know if the couple are actually in trouble or not. Inside the house, the blackout provides wonderful opportunity for shadows and half lights to be concealing truths. Light usually means overexposure, and the effect becomes something of a kind of torture in itself, as the lights go from off to too bright and off again.
This is a wonderful film. Quite different from those of the Czech new wave. It has more emotional depth and sophistication, if less wit and mental agility. This is a deliberately dense film., bringing home the crushing reality of the way these people felt under The Party.